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In what looked like a mini dress rehearsal for the cacophony of dissent that's expected to hit the streets of New York City during next summer's GOP convention, nearly 3,000 demonstrators gathered on Seventh Avenue to protest President Bush as he presided over a $2,000-a-plate fundraiser inside midtown's Sheraton Hotel on Monday. Vowing to deliver Bush a hearty unwelcome, the demonstrators clamored inside the metal pens that police had strung up along the west side of Seventh Avenue between 49th and 54th streets, denouncing everything from the war in Iraq and tax cuts for the rich to the Bush administration's heavy-fisted assaults on abortion, immigrants, and civil rights.
"In the same way that this fundraiser is a kickoff for Bush's reelection campaign, this may be the kickoff for a wave of protest across the country against Bush," said Bill Dobbs, spokesperson for the antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice.
The size of the demo did not match the heft of Bush's campaign machine, which raked in a record-breaking $4 million at the event hosted by the titans of Wall Street and New York's real estate industry. But organizers felt they succeeded in voicing the concerns of many ordinary New Yorkers who feel the Bush administration has declared war against them.
"President Bush, you've come here to fill up your campaign cup," shouted Carla Goldstein of Planned Parenthood from a makeshift podium. "We've come to say enough is enough! Enough lies, enough hypocrisy, enough nominating right-wing judges to fulfill your conservative agendas, enough appointing those who would decide when woman can and cannot have a child. President Bush, we've had enough!"
Indeed, the fact that the protest was initiated by Planned Parenthood of New York City, which then invited United for Peace to help swell its ranks, may signal the potential for a new and broader coalition of anti-Bush forces to mobilize over the next year.
Planned Parenthood did not demonstrate at the last GOP convention and was not active in the antiwar marches over the last year. But activists say Bush's impending approval of the so-called "partial-birth" abortion ban, which effectively outlaws abortions beyond the second trimester regardless of the threat to a woman's health, has forced the pro-choice movement to take a more direct role in campaigning to unseat him. "We want to stop marginalizing issues of reproductive rights and bring them into the larger fold by uniting a larger coalition of groups who can speak to social-justice issues," says Planned Parenthood's Miriam Gerace.
Similarly, antiwar groups, many of which receded from public eye in the wake of Bush's hastily proclaimed "victory" in Iraq, say they are looking to extend their reach beyond foreign policy. "We're trying to connect the dots," says Leslie Cagan of United for Peace. "Bush and his administration are a multi-issue target, so we have to be a multi-issue movement."
But the effort to bring together a diverse array of people and issues was once again hampered by the NYPD's cumbersome protest pens, which balkanized the different groups into competing islands of dissent. Police sealed off the area directly in front of the Sheraton between 52nd and 53rd streets, forcing demonstrators to gather in pens to the north and south. At 50th Street, several dozen backers of the hard-left group International ANSWER chanted in support of Venezuela's besieged president Hugo Chavez and railed against the Bush Administration's imperialist adventures in Iraq. Meanwhile, at 54th Street a coalition of immigration-rights groups decried Bush's "terror campaign" against immigrants next to a small group of pro-Israel supporters angered by the Bush Administration's "roadmap" for peace in Palestine.
Many protesters complained they were unable to enter the pens or forced to detour to Broadway to join their protest groups. At one point several protesters toppled a metal barrier at 51st Street in an effort to merge with the other demonstrators. Police waded aggressively into the crowd to make arrests, prompting chants of "Shame!" and "Arrest Bush!" Seven people were arrested for disorderly conduct.
Investigative reporter and author Greg Palast, whose anti-Bush salvo, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, has made him a lefty celebrity, found himself addressing a tiny crowd mobilized by the anti-Bush group Voter March in a pen near 54th Street. "They're trying to spread out the demonstration so that people inside paying two grand for their pudding won't puke when they see the reality of what's going on out here," Palast complained. "I just got in town from London, where my documentary exposing the Bush family fortunes is airing on primetime television, but here in the U.S. it's like I'm relegated to samizdat reporting. It's like there's an electronic Berlin Wall against covering this stuff," he said, gesturing to the satellite news trucks swarming around the Sheraton.
But the folks on the street seemed to have little trouble connecting the issues. Antiwar placards demanding "Where are the Weapons of Mass Destruction?" and "End King Geoge's Reign of Terror!" jostled freely with pro-choice banners and signs denouncing Bush's "War on Women." Many in the crowd said they were outraged that the Republican party continues to invoke the attacks of 9/11 as a rallying cry for Bush's presidency. "I feel like Bush coming to New York is especially hypocritical because he's done nothing for this city," said Sarah Beretczki, a 29-year-old illustrator from Brooklyn who sported a sign that read, "My Bush Sheds Its Own Blood."
And many demonstrators vowed to be out in force next August, regardless of the NYPD's expected clampdown. "I have never been this politically disturbed in my entire life," said Gloria Charny, 74, of Westchester. "Bush has got all the power in his hands, and the American public is lapping it up without even realizing what it means."